The globe-trotter Lawrence Osborne is attuned to the often catastrophic clash of civilizations that a mobile world sets in train. One imagines he might endorse fellow British writer David Goodhart’s distinction between the Somewheres and the Anywheres: people rooted profoundly in one place and culture vs. peripatetic, well-educated elites who derive their only real sense of location from one another’s company. Osborne is certainly clued up about the blundering of decadent tourists amid more morally grounded locals. His cynical take on Western decay is pitiless, matter-of-fact.
Osborne’s riveting third novel, “The Forgiven,” explored the dire consequences of louche Europeans partying in conservative Morocco. His new novel, “Beautiful Animals,” transports us to the Greek island of Hydra, where two young women strike up a somewhat hierarchical friendship while vacationing with their families for the summer. The worldlier of the two, a few years older at 24, Naomi Codrington is the daughter of a wealthy British art dealer who has owned a house on the island since the 1980s. Samantha Haldane is the more naive and therefore (of course) American.
When the footloose pair discovers a Syrian refugee, Faoud, washed up on a deserted beach, Naomi is determined to make the young man their summer project. But the altruism of her intention to help him reach mainland Europe rings hollow. She is a mischief-maker and idly attracted to Faoud, who is instinctively leery of non-Greeks bearing gifts.
To secure funds to finance a new life in Italy for their pet Syrian, Naomi proposes to facilitate his burglary of her own house. Though Samantha balks at becoming involved, she has fallen under the savvier girl’s sway. For the reader, the iffy scheme seems unrelated to Naomi’s newfound social conscience, and instead bound up with ambivalent relationships to her father and stepmother. Perhaps needless to say, the plan goes horribly wrong. Osborne is a master at imbuing his text with both dread and inexorability. “Beautiful Animals” positively drips with this-can’t-end-well.
Unless a novelist assumes the kind of full-on humanitarian perspective that simply isn’t this author’s bag, the morally thorny European migration crisis is difficult to write about (if we’re still calling it a crisis; the steady flow of people trafficked into Southern Europe from Africa and the Middle East seems more like a new normal). Osborne’s oblique approach to this subject matter is ideal. Only rarely is the subject addressed directly, as when Naomi’s father declares, “You have to wonder whether Europeans are just too stupid to survive now. We don’t seem to understand obvious things that are staring us in the face. . . . If we keep them out it destroys them; if we let them in it destroys us. Do we have the stomach for that dilemma?”
The portrayal of Faoud is sympathetic but unsentimental. Confident, wary and single-minded, the refugee will do what he must to survive (always a little chilling). He has his Darwinian wits about him in a way that the Westerners no longer do. When pursued by the “soft officers of European law,” Faoud has a natural leg up: “They, after all, cared about their lives: it was a tremendous, perhaps fatal, disadvantage.” He is casually dismissive of Christian culture in Italy: “Their world didn’t matter anyway — it was nearly a ruin.”
In kind, Osborne has a good feel for the contempt many poor locals feel for the wealthy Anywheres on whom they depend for income. The maid at Naomi’s summer home observes that the Codringtons “were long asleep, dulled by their sleeping pills and booze. Their snores could be heard throughout the house. . . . It was a disgusting sound, a sound commensurate with her bestial employers. . . . That night they were in full roar, like huge fattened tropical frogs.”
Osborne is both a consummate stylist and a keen observer. Provincial Italian towns are “defiantly morose.” A walk under a midday sun is “the kind of torment that only the affluent unemployed would inflict upon themselves.” A certain generation of older Europeans “drank in a way that was now incomprehensible to younger people. For them it was like showering or taking out the dog.” (Indeed, Osborne’s 2013 nonfiction book, “The Wet and the Dry,” addresses different attitudes toward alcohol around the globe.) His dialogue can simmer with something close to wisdom: “You think there’s unconditional love, but there isn’t. The conditions are everything.”
So let’s not mince words. This is a great book. Truly difficult to put down, the novel exerts a sickening pull. Its climax and resolution will not disappoint. The social perspective is sophisticated, smart and uncomfortable, and the story is cracking. Osborne published two novels, in 1986 and 1990, then plunged into nonfiction and journalism, only emerging as a fiction writer again with “The Forgiven” in 2012. Yet comparisons to Graham Greene and Paul Bowles might already qualify as trite. By publishing four novels in the past five years, he seems to be working from a fat, tattered file titled “Human Condition: Notes,” and is making up for lost time. Lucky for us, too.
Lionel Shriver’s most recent novel is “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.”
By Lawrence Osborne
Hogarth. 287 pp. $25